Most roleplaying games are filled with some pretty fantastic situations: magical auguries, super science weapons, super-powered battles, etc. They're also filled with a lot of pretty fantastic actions: shooting gas tanks to make a car explode, creating bridges out of arrows, resting to full health within days after being beaten to within an inch of your life, etc.
I think we've all at some point in a roleplaying game encountered a situation that's really pushed the boundaries of our suspension of disbelief, if not shattered them entirely. Some of these situations may even be fairly common occurrences. Either way, breaking one's suspension of disbelief can make it harder to get in character, and can undermine the credibility of the action in the game world. Needless to say, this can be problematic.
So the question I have this week is: What situations have you encountered that break your suspension of disbelief? In particular, what are the most common situations that break your suspension of disbelief?
I'll give an example of a common RPG situation that I personally find suspension of disbelief-breaking:
I call it “yo-yo healing.” Basically, the party's in some big fight. One of the PCs drops. They healer heals them; they get back up. They almost immediately drop again. They're healed; they get back up. They drop again. Lather, rinse, repeat. D&D 4e is a particularly bad offender here, with it's many automatic healing zones, but pretty much any game with insta-heals can fall into this pattern.
Now, I know why games are designed so this can happen. It's boring to get knocked out and sit on the sidelines for the rest of the combat. I can see why could be tactically interesting, potentially. But it still regularly breaks my suspension of disbelief, as there is neither any realistic precedent for similar situations, nor does this sort of situation ever really arise in fiction either. It's purely a game construct.
So that's just one example. But are your situations?
I don't know if “yo-yo healing” breaks the suspension of disbelief in all settings. I think it might be fine for one character in a Supers setting, for example. Knock him down, he regenerates. Cut him in half, he regenerates. I think “yo-yo healing” breaks suspension when the tone and setting are very different from the mechanics.
I think a lot of belief-breaking is because of problematic mechanics. I think D&D has had some issues with this (min-max builds that do one trick that locks down an opponent because of weird interactions, healing “fields” and other powerful restoration, etc.). The most obvious example is Pun-Pun the Kobald, a Level-6 character that can gain infinite power and godhood using just official 3.5 source material.
I can think of less-broken, yet somewhat belief-breaking mechanical problems over the years with various systems. They happen. They can be problematic when they disrupt the game or create massive power disparity between characters. I remember a short Shadowrun campaign where a player's rigger character had an RV that would just launch a missile launch against targets, negating pretty much everyone else in group and breaking certain setting conventions (the whole shadows part).
I actually only care about belief-breaking when it breaks other things (group cohesion, enjoyment of the game, etc.). The D&D 4 healing stuff was wonky, but so was the fighter “marking” enemies to keep them off allies in a good number of situations (felt like holding agro in an MMO). Very gamist mechanics sometimes do that. While not my preferred type of game, if the rest of the game is fun, I can ignore it.
Edited Micah (July 14, 2014 08:37:08)
When you're dealing with a setting with wizards, “A wizard did it” isn't too far off base and needn't stretch belief very much.
Like with yo-yo healing. Yeah, the healing zones thing I don't get. But I don't see much problem with a magical healer waking someone back up who just got beat within an inch of their life. They're using magic. And as long as they're still capable of doing it within the rules of their magic (have the spell slots/components/mana to do it), there's no reason to find it unbelievable. It makes sense within the logic of the setting.
For me, something that strains disbelief for me is when the average mook hits harder than any of the PCs. Your basic mook should be able to hurt PCs, but probably not one-hit them into unconsciousness. The PCs are supposed to be the heroes and they are less heroic if mooks are better than them. Mooks overwhelm with numbers, not personal strength. Named enemies should be on par or better than heroes depending on the scenario.
I do wonder if yo-yo healing leads to more powerful mooks or more powerful mooks leads to yo-yo healing. Does Batman create his villains or do the villains create Batman?
lol @ Batman question. On point!
For me, yo-yo healing has always felt like a weird convention, to be sure, but it almost seems appropriate for the tone that high-level D&D seeks to evoke. Like, a high-level cleric is supposed to be a living conduit of divine energy, a direct link between a source of incomprehensible power and the tiny humanoids who offer it worship. A high-level cleric who is a fountain of divine radiance, mending even the most grievous wounds instantly with a wave of their hand, seems about on par with a fighter who can run up the neck of a dragon to wedge his sword in their weakest scales and delver eight blows in six seconds, or the wizard who summons sheets of fire to incinerate legions of howling orcs with a snap of the fingers. When something goes wrong for epic heroes, it goes *epically* wrong, and it requires *epic* power to set it right. So, yo-yo healing can feel okay to me in a situation like that, or the one Micah described with regenerating supers, but in other settings or situations (low/dark fantasy, modern, sci-fi, etc.) yo-yo healing is weird. Suspension of disbelief varies by setting.
One thing I *always* find jarring to suspension of disbelief is Critical Existence Failure. It doesn't matter how many hideous blows you receive from that 50 ft. tall dragon, how many times you fail your Reflex save against enough fire breath to melt stone, you are totally 100% fine until you lose that last hit point, at which point you are basically dead. I can't think of any kind of fiction where something like this happens and it's a believable or useful story element. I guess a possible exception could be four-color supers or DragonballZ sort of stuff, where there is a clear difference between “I punched him really hard and he laughed at me” and “I punched him really hard and he visibly had to expend some effort to block” and “I punched him really hard and he flew through a building, but then shook his head and got back up to keep fighting.” Even so, I feel like this system of tracking damage is implemented in systems where it has no business being and it totally kills my suspension of disbelief.
There's this scene in one of the 90's Batman movies (Batman Forever? Batman & Robin?) where Batman jumps out of an airplane without a parachute, grappling hooks the side of a building and then swings to the ground safe and sound. This scene may be totally appropriate for the four color supers genre. It still totally breaks my suspension of disbelief every time I see it in the movie.
I think there are two different (albeit related) concepts that are being conflated in this thread. One is a question of genre-appropriateness, the other is an appeal to verisimilitude. The former I'll call, for lack of a better term… genre-appropriateness; the latter is what I generally think of as suspension of disbelief.
Granted, different genres require different amounts of suspension of disbelief, or require suspension of disbelief in different ways.
Yo-yo healing may not cross any suspension of disbelief lines as a supers shtick–or even in Looney Toons–but that's only because the bar of verisimilitude is already so low in those genres. (Side Note: Yo-yo healing may not be genre-appropriate for Looney Toons, but it is certainly no less suspension of disbelief-breaking than anything the Coyote & Roadrunner pull.)
And so that we don't get so distracted by the yo-yo healing example, let me throw out another one: The D&D economy. It works well enough when you don't pay it a lot of attention. And looting sacks of gold from tombs may fit the genre. But anytime buying & selling stuff in D&D begins to get a bit of spotlight–or for god sakes, the PCs try to start a business–the weird way the prices work, the way making money through the Profession skill works, and the way pricing services works… it all comes crashing down on its head.
Edited beholdsa (July 17, 2014 14:24:57)
Actually, the D&D economy makes perfect sense. You have so many people cashing in huge hordes of lost treasure–not just gold but also armor and weapons and such–that inflation is a real problem. It's literally more cost-efficient to go out and slay a few undead and a lich king and use that treasure to buy armor that was looted than it is to buy the materials for the armor and make it yourself and then try to sell it. There's so much finished product from looting on the market that the cost has been driven down to where there's no room left for producers' markup. Producers are obsolete because supply vastly outstrips demand, and they will continue to be obsolete until the supply-demand ratio reaches a good equilibrium again.
Edited Berggeistermeister (July 17, 2014 13:08:35)
The example of the D&D economy shows the rough edges of a greatly oversimplified system to represent a much more complex idea. If you don't look too closely, it roughly seems to be what it pretends to be, but look too closely and you start to see the duck tape and wire.
Critical Existence Failure is sort of the same thing. It is a greatly simplified system of health and wellness. It is the extreme end of simple for such systems. The other end is a very gritty system with would modifiers for every bodily system and limb and lots of different status effects (“My left leg is pierced by shrapnel reducing speed and leg agility by 79%, and my right arm is still on fire resulting in extreme pain and a loss of all dexterity in that hand.”). I like wound modifiers as long as they don't go to the other extreme (“I've taken a minor cut, and now I'm half as good.”).
Yeah, Critical Existence Failure is something that's extremely annoying.
But also helpful. It's hard to keep track of all your bonuses and negatives. It's really easy to forget “Oh, I'm at 50% health, so I need to take -2 to my rolls.” Just hard to keep track.